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Herring Gull { Birds of Europe}

Updated on October 5, 2015

Head and bill of the Herring Gull



The Herring Gull ,Larus argentatus,belongs to the order of birds known as the Charadiiformes and the family Laridae within that order. The genus name of Larus derives from the Greek laros indicating a seabird. The specific name of argentatus derives from the Latin argentum meaning silver+ tatus ornamented with.

In the UK it is placed on the Red list of conservation concern. Declines of population/distribution of over 50% in the last forty years or so.In Ireland it is also Red listed due to a large decline in the breeding population. In the UK the population is estimated at 130,000 pairs in summer.The winter population is estimated at 730,000 individuals {2006/2006}. { source BTO }.

The European population is regarded as being secure with a total population of between 666,000-900,000 pairs. Populations vary from country to country here are a few selected examples.The Belgium population is estimated at between 1,500-1,600 Breeding Pairs {BP}, Denmark 55,000-60,000 BP. Finland 30,000-40,000 BP. France 74,000-77,000 BP. Germany 39,000-46,000 BP. Norway 150,000-250,000 BP. Russia 100,000-500,000 BP.Sweden 50,000-100,000 BP. { source Birdlife }

They breed in North Eurasia and North and east North America. Wintering in southern Europe,south Asia and central America,where it inhabits sea coasts,lakes and rivers.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Faoileag-an-sgadoin, the Welsh,Gwylan Penwaig and the Irish name is Faoilean scaden.

To find out more about seagulls see my hub Black-headed gull {birds of Europe}

Herring Gull and habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley.
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley. | Source

Description of the Herring Gull

Description at a glance. Summer, the yellow strong bill has a red spot.The head is pure white. They have a pale grey back. Pale pinkish yellow legs. The tail is black with flecks of white. There are white patches on the black wing tips. Winter--The pure white head now has grey brown streaks.

In more detail---------

Individuals from different parts of its wide range may vary in their size,but the females are,as a rule, of smaller dimensions than the males of their own locality or colony. the plumages ,however, are alike at their corresponding seasons and ages.

The breeding attire of fully adult birds have the head and neck,upper back,sides of the head,entire under surface,upper tail coverts and tail pure white. The back,scapulars and wing coverts a delicate rather darkish lavender grey. The scapulars and the secondary feathers broadly tipped with white,showing prominent as a bar across the wings. All the primary feathers have tips of white,of a larger or smaller extent.

The markings on the quills are are intricate. Saunders, gives a description of them " The first primary which is almost entirely black except for a narrow grey wedge-shaped spot on the inner web,has a narrow sub terminal black bar,which in most old birds divides ' the white into a tip and mirror'. With increasing age the white 'mirror' absorbs the black bar till the latter disappears,leaving the primary pure white from the tip to more than two inches upwards,whilst from a grey'wedge' along the inner web gradually eats into the black portion,reducing the width of the black bar along the inner web to only two inches."

" The second blackish on both sides of the shaft,with a bar the same as in the first,a white 'mirror'-absent in birds not fully mature- and a grey wedge,which sometimes breaks through and joins the 'mirror'. The third is grey at the base,blackish on the lower part of the outer web,passing into a white apex of the wedge. The fourth and fifth,the same, the former greyer on both webs. The sixth has no bar,the rest grey with white tips. The encroachment of the light portions upon the darker ones increase with the age of the bird. The grey wedge on the primary feathers is an important distinction between some closely allied species."

The bill is yellow with a carmine spot at the angle of the lower mandible. the ring around the eyes yellow.The legs and feet are flesh coloured.

For young birds and the varying stages of their plumage development see 'Young birds' below.

Herring Gulls belong to the larger Gulls being 22-26 inches long {55-67 cm },and weighing 750-1,250 grams { 27-45 ounces}.

A Dancing Herring Gull,courtesy of PC King,standard you tube license. The gull is performing this dance to entice worms to the surface.

Juvenille Herring Gull.

Taken in Holland
Taken in Holland | Source

General and Historical information

The Herring Gull is so named from a supposed ability to guide fishermen to the shoals of Herrings approaching the coasts. However, it is not thought to be any better than other gulls in pursuit of Herrings. It was once one of our most common of our shore birds.Like most other species in the family Laridae it is a gregarious species and, although more numerous at some places than others,there is hardly a district in the UK where it is not to be seen at some time of the year.

Although during the autumn and winter this species extends its range southwards,large numbers tend to reside throughout the year within its breeding haunts except perhaps, in its more northern portions. The food of the Herring Gull consists mainly of shore offal,crustaceans and young herrings, the shoals of which they follow in large flocks,dropping down upon the fry and picking them upon the wing,or sometimes when swimming in the midst of them.

Butler, 1898, makes the following notes on their habits. " Their manoeuvres during such an occasion are denominated 'play of the gull',and to see them hurrying up from all parts,from their nests or resting placed,on the shrill call of the scouts that denotes this discovery,is a most interesting sight to witness. Mussels and other shell-fish also form part of their diet,sometimes bolted whole but often the contents alone are eaten after the shells have been broken by dropping it upon a rock"

" On a dredging operation just off the Isle of ,from the Marine Biological Station at Port Erin,during a short interval devoted to lunch,when the vessel was hove-to,we were charmed by the tameness of these Gulls, a crowd of which soon gathered around. The scraps we threw to them was nimbly picked up, at first with some diffidence ,with rather a hurried grab from the surface of the sea,without the birds touching the water with than the tips of their extended limbs."

" Within a few minutes,however, perceiving their good will,they came quite close under the stern of our small steamer and fed without fear, sometimes, indeed, seizing the morsels thrown before they reached the water."

these birds utter a loud cry at the approach of danger,and so, become sentinels for other species. They fly rather slowly, at a low height sweeping down and catching any prey from the water. They tend to walk about on the beach when in search of food.

Apart from the items of its diet already mentioned this species is very indiscriminate in its choice of food,swallowing small fish ,crabs,shrimps,and molluscs generally, starfish,the eggs of other sea birds,wheat,small birds and their nestlings, worms,cockchaffers,indeed anything that is edible. It gives preference, however, when it has a choice of fish,and is very bold at approaching boats and nets. It is said to trample the sand and earth to bring its prey to the surface. {see video above}.

Herring gull and nest

Transferred to Commons via Richard001
Transferred to Commons via Richard001 | Source

Herring Gull and Man

Once considered a nuisance in towns where it breeds on the roof tops and begins calling very loudly,very early on summer mornings, the Herring Gull has now seen declines over much of Europe. It is a bird of sea cliffs, in summer and roaming the coast line in search of food,however, they do travel far inland to feed on tips and roost on large reservoirs. Flocks returning to their evening roosts do so forming long V lines which can look dramatic. In winter groups frequently forage around the outflows from pies and sewers,around small harbours or out on the mud flats at low tide.

Half fledged gulls,are, according to one eminent writer in the 1800's,were easily reared and domesticated,becoming so attached to the place and the people,where they had been brought up and kindly treated,as to remain there for the rest of their lives,without being pinioned and with no other tie than that of affection.

Mr Barlett, has placed on record 'Proceedings of the Zoological Society,1859' interesting notes on a Herring Gull,born in the gardens in 1857 { of parents also born in the year 1850 in the gardens} where it remained all the summer and autumn.-

" At the commencement of the winter he was in the habit of flying about {not pinioned},and occasionally staying away a day of two,then for a week or more,returning again generally about feeding time and alighting among other gulls and feeding with them. This continued till the end of March, 1858, at which time he disappeared."

" Nothing more was seen or heard of him until the middle of November 1858,when to the delight and astonishment of all who knew him,he returned one afternoon at the usual time,meeting the keeper with a box of food,he followed him to the enclosure where he was hatched, and settling down among the other gulls,took his dinner as though he head never been away,not appearing the least shy or wild"

Mr Hewitson, also gave the following account,as communicated to him by the Rev.W.D.Fox, " At Colbourne, in the Isle of Wight,a Herring Gull made its escape about thirty years ago from a garden where he had been kept prisoner.From that time,however, to the present day he has returned almost daily to visit the place of his former captivity,though at a distance of six or seven miles from that part of the coast where they resort."

" Here, he is regularly fed and is so tame with the man who has regularly attended to his wants, that he would eat out of his hand, but will not allow any further familiarities. In the breeding season he is accompanied by his mate,who will not venture to descend,but remains hovering and screaming over him whist he is feeding below."

Wing stretching

Taken in Holland.
Taken in Holland. | Source

Breeding, Nest and eggs.

These birds first started to nest on roof tops during the 1920s in south west England. This was a break away from their traditional nesting places which is upon rocky places on the coast and islands. The latter is still used by the great majority of Herring gulls that nest in the UK..

In former times records reveal that there were large colonies on Lundy Island,on the rocks of Holyhead { North Wales}, Foulshaw Moss,in Morecambe Bay {north west England} and at Flamborough Head {Yorkshire}. On writer conveys that in Scotland the Herring Gull occurs abundantly on all western Isles,Orkney and the Shetland Archipelago and along the eastern coast. " The whole circumference of Rum seems to have become a vast colony of Gulls,perhaps no island on the coast now contains as many Herring Gulls as Rum does"

However, Butler 1896, states " It is never safe,however, to count on finding the same sized colony at the same place,many years in succession. Gulls resembling Terns as being fickle as to their nurseries,and leaving and returning to them,for no perceptible reason"

The nest is often found in the same colony as those of the Lesser and Greater Black-backed gulls,is built in some localities,mainly on ledges of perpendicular and almost inaccessible cliffs and rarely on flat 'table' lands. Butler relates that " whilst visiting Uist , { Scottish Island}, where the islet is uneven and covered with Luzula sylvatica, the nests were more diversified than is usual of those found on flat grassy islands. Nests were perched here and there on ups and downs,and some were composed of heather,some Bracken and others of Luzula"

The nest is often very large { although some individuals seem content with nothing more than a scrape to deposit their eggs }, and constructed of grass,occasionally sticks or any vegetable material which they have found convenient in their chosen locality. The female lays two to three eggs which very variable in their colour and markings. Dresser {1880},says that they vary from a moderately light stone to dark brown of a somewhat yellowish hue" The average egg seems to be moderately dark stone colour. They are blotched with very dark brown and they are as a rule congregated at the large end of the shell, or evenly distributed over the shell depending on the specimen.

On this subject Mr. Henry J.Pearson, whose visits to the northern shores of Europe was for the purpose of investigating the breeding habits and haunts of these birds,wrote in a letter to the 'Ibis' October 1896-" It has been a doubtful point for some time among British Ornithologists, which of the Gull tribe lays beautiful eggs suffused with salmon pink,or reddish buff, now to be seen in many of our egg collections."

" During a short visit this year to some of the islands on the north of Norway I had the pleasure of observing a Gull on one of these red eggs. Before my arrival two red eggs had been taken shown to me,and another nest had been made by the same pair of Gulls a few yards off, in which was a splendid specimen . I lay down behind some rocks about sixty yards away,and after waiting about twenty minutes a Herring Gull walked quietly up to the nest and settled. I watched her through my glasses for some time,and am as sure of her identity as if I had shot her and handled her."

" To show how scarce the red eggs are ,I may say I went to a large group of islands {ten miles from the first mentioned} where an enormous number of gulls breed. At that time of my visit 7,320 eggs had already been sent to market and the season was not nearly over. Half of these I estimated to be Larus argentatus,yet no red egg had ever been found from these groups of islands. There is even a larger colony of L.argentatus at the north end of Fuglo,a well known hard rock, but the Lapps,living there say they never found any red eggs"

The eggs, at that time, were regarded as a delicacy and sent to market in enormous numbers and it seems that in the western Isles of Scotland they were trusted by the fishermen as a very material part of their support during the fishing season.

The eggs that survived were incubated for 28-30 days,the task was in the main undertaken by the female with occasional relief from her mate. The resulting chicks issued from the eggs were down covered squabs of a greyish buff or yellowish white colouring,variously marked with black on the head,back and chest, lighter on the underside.

Courtesy of Dan Gagnon. Standard YouTube license. Taken at Rhode Island USA.

Young birds and various stages of their development -plumage changes.

The change of plumage they assume between the fledging and the adult stages,when they are ready to breed,that is when the birds are about five years old,are very complicated and I refer to Mr.Saunders, British Museum Catalogue, who was regarded as a complete authority on the subject.

" In the first autumn the upper parts are streaked and mottled with brown and greyish buff. The quills a dark umber,with pale inner webs and whitish tips to most. Rectrices similar,but more or less mottled with whitish at the bases of the two or three outer pairs. Feathers of the upper tail coverts brown with whitish buff tips. Under pairs nearly uniform brown at first, but afterwards grey mottled. The bill blackish,paler at the base of the lower mandible."

" The second autumn the head is nearly white,streaked with greyish-brown. The upper parts are barred with brown on a greyish ground,though no pure grey feathers have made their appearance on the mantle. The quills are paler. The tail more mottled with white at the bases of all the feathers."

" In the third autumn the feathers of the mantle are chiefly grey,with some brown streaks down the shafts.A faint sub-apical spot begins to show on the outermost primary . The tail coverts, partly white,and the dark portion of the rectrices { any of the large stiff feathers of the birds tail} is much broken up, the under parts are mainly white.

" In the fourth autumn the sub-apical patch on the first primary is larger and the quills from the 5th upwards,are banded with black and tipped white. The tail feathers white,slightly vermiculated with brown. The bill is a greenish yellow basally, reddish black at the angle."

" At the moult of the 5th autumn,all brown markings are lost, the primary feathers have white tips,black bars and grey 'wedged' though the proportion of dark colouring in the quills is greater than it is in older birds."

Juvenile Herring Gull



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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, Thank you, gulls are wily birds and very intelligent. best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I have known my share of Herring Gulls, as well as Ring-billed gulls. They enjoy their junk food and will eat out of one's hand with little urging. Nice story!

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello Devika, once again I must thank you for being the first to visit and for leaving your kind and encouraging comments. Also too, for the votes,it is kind of you. Best wishes to you..

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Hi D.A.L. I like the way you introduced another interesting and informative hub on a different bird. You style is unique and very helpful. Voted up, interesting and useful.


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